Can fertility monitors for men and women help couples get pregnant?

Bracelets, mattress monitors and phone attachments are aiming to help couples get pregnant, but they only look at one part of the equation and the most effective fertility tech may actually be for the men...

Vanessa Hand Orellana CNET Senior Editor
As head of wearables at CNET, Vanessa reviews and writes about the latest smartwatches and fitness trackers. She joined the team seven years ago as an on-camera reporter for CNET's Spanish-language site and then moved on to the English side to host and produce some of CNET's videos and YouTube series. When she's not testing out smartwatches or dropping phones, you can catch her on a hike or trail run with her family.
Vanessa Hand Orellana
6 min read
Courtesy of Ava

I used technology to make a baby -- no doctor, needles or hormones, just a phone and a thermometer. The phone was for the Kindara app, which I used to track my menstrual cycle for about two years. 

I wasn't disciplined enough to take my temperature every morning, but I logged enough data to get a deeper understanding of what was going on in my body. Once the time came to try for a baby, I used the same information to help me conceive in a matter of months. 

Though I probably could've done it without the app, I was lucky. For a lot of couples, getting pregnant can be a serious challenge.

"The chance of getting pregnant in a single month is only about 20 percent in a healthy couple," says Dr. Jennifer Conti, clinical assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Stanford University School of Medicine. "Even when they're doing everything right."

While planning for pregnancy by tracking your cycle isn't novel, fertility technology promises to take some of the guesswork out of the pregnancy equation by pinpointing the best days to conceive. There are countless apps like the one I used -- Apple 's Health hub has a designated reproductive health section and Fitbit 's new Versa watch lets you log your menstrual cycle on its app -- but now there's a growing field of designated wearables and monitors with the sole purpose of keeping tabs on your reproductive health. Unlike the apps, they use more than just basal body temperature to do the tracking for you and determine your prime window for ovulation.

Monitoring your fertile window

These fertility devices take a few different forms, but they all promise roughly the same result. The $249 Ava (about £190 or AU$340) tracks your menstrual cycle by collecting data such as skin temperature, resting pulse rate, breathing patterns, heat loss and body movement as you sleep. The information then transfers to its mobile app, which uses algorithms to determine your optimal window of fertility.

Ava Fertility Tracker

Wear Ava overnight to track your fertile window. 

Josh Miller

The EarlySense Percept ($199, which converts to about £150 or AU$270) monitors data like heart rate variability and breathing patterns through a white disk that you place under your mattress. Its app also collects the information wirelessly and evaluates it to predict your next period, ovulation date and six-day fertility window.  

Percept Fertility Monitor

The Percept fits discreetly under your mattress to track your cycle without interfering with a good night's rest. 

Josh Miller

The Mira Fertility is a new take on the old pee-on-a-stick method. Using a disposable wand and a small analyzer device, it detects the surge in a woman's luteinizing hormone (LH) that triggers ovulation. An app then analyzes the information to alert you when ovulation is about to happen and calculate your percentage chance of getting pregnant on a given day. The Mira is expected to ship at the end of the summer and its founders say it will cost around $200. That converts to about £150 or AU$270.

Mira Fertility Tracker

The Mira Fertility Tracker keeps close tabs on the woman's fertility hormone to more accurately predict ovulation.   


It's complicated

The appeal of fertility gadgets isn't a mystery. Having so much information about your body and menstrual cycle can help empower women to play a more proactive role in the baby-making process, or detect problems that may be getting in the way.

"We ended up needing IVF as [the apps] weren't that much of a help," wrote Miranda Brillante, a member of the Main Street Mamas, San Francisco Facebook group, when I asked its members about the value of fertility tech. "But it did help me realize something was probably not right after a year because I 'knew' I was ovulating and we were timing intercourse correctly."

But Conti says all of that information isn't necessary from a medical standpoint.  

"The thing that really tells the most information about a patient is the basic, 'Is she having a normal monthly period?,'" she says. "I don't really need day-to-day levels."

Similarly, while technology may be better at presenting the information and offer a greater level of precision than just counting days on a calendar, it by no means guarantees a baby.

"To give someone the idea that you can control your fertility at home..." Conti says. "I'm worried that it might give couples more anxiety rather than directing them to the right kind of help."

But there's more to making a baby than just tracking your cycle. It's like buying a Fitbit and expecting to lose weight right away. Counting your steps may push you to be more active, but you also have to factor in calorie intake, age and any other medical factors.

Dr. Peter Uzelac, medical director at the Marin Fertility Center in California, says delayed reproductive age is the biggest obstacle for a woman looking to get pregnant. "Ovulation is only one part of [conception] and it's a relatively small part."

Fertility tech for men

There's also the male factor. "Infertility is often seen as a woman's problem," says Dr. Michael Eisenberg, aAssociate pProfessor of urology at Stanford University. "But only about one- third of infertility cases are women, 30 percent are men and 30 percent of the time it's both."

The traditional test for male infertility requires men to go to a clinic and ejaculate a semen sample, which is later analyzed in a lab. But Eisenberg says many men aren't willing to go through the testing process. "When couples are ready to conceive, the first one to go in [to a lab] is the women," he says. "The process for a man is awkward and gross."

Technology, though, is lowering that testing barrier. The Yo Sperm Testand Trak Fertilityare two FDA-cleared options for sperm analysis kits that men can take at home. The Yo costs $60 for two tests -- about £45 or AU$80. It comes with an attachment for your phone's camera that transforms it into a microscope so you can see your swimmers in real time. Take a small sperm sample, along with the provided mixing agent, and put it on a slide that you insert into the attachment. The companion app then analyzes the results to determine sperm concentration levels.

YO Home Sperm Test Kit

YO Sperm Test Kit uses the camera on your smartphone as a microscope to analyze semen quality. 

Josh Miller

The Trak ($200 for four tests) uses a cylindrical analyzer that spins your sperm sample to determine whether or not your sperm are within a healthy range. The related app also coaches men on ways to improve their sperm count over time. (Whereas a woman has no control over the quality or count of her eggs, the man can actually change both by altering diet and lifestyle.)

Trak Male Fertility Testing System

This at home sperm test pairs with your smartphone and coaches men to help improve their sperm count over time. 

Josh Miller

Is the tech worth it?

For men, it's a no-brainer. The convenience of being able to screen for problems can be key in identifying fertility issues early on. Though the tests won't provide the kind of information that a proper lab test would, they can be a great screening tool. They let men take steps to improve semen quality and track progress over time without having to set foot in a lab. And if there is a problem, they can encourage a man to see a specialist sooner.

For women, the answer is deeply personal. Fertility devices alone can't do much to change biology or improve fertility. But they can provide an added level of convenience for women looking to track their cycle in an effort either to get pregnant or to avoid pregnancy without hormones. It comes down to how much they're willing to spend, whether it's time logging in an app or notebook, or money to have a device do it for them. It can't guarantee a baby, but the information may help get you there. 

This story appears in the Summer 2018 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.

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